Paul Rousteau’s painterly seascapes play with perception

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Light and colour flood Rousteau’s abstracted frames

The sun greets us every day. The familiar sight of a glowing orb, but one we cannot look at for long. We risk going blind if we do; bright auras burst, and black spots begin to colour our vision. Paul Rousteau’s new book, Seascapes, does what our sight cannot. It chases the sun across the sky as it rises and sinks into cool expanses of water each day. The book centres on one of the world’s most spectacular natural sights and our perception of it. 

Rousteau photographed his seascapes from a boat off the Australian coast as part of an artist residency near the Coral Sea. During his residency, Rousteau would disappear into the darkroom to construct the photographs. With their rich kaleidoscopic colours, the images typify the aesthetic of the french artist who has previously referred to himself as the “PEINTRE OISIF” (translating from French to “IDLE PAINTER”). The title nods to his lack of formal painting training but also Rousteau’s desire for his images to appear “light, to look like they were easy to create, in a single act. In reality, the works are made through complex experiments. They sit between figuration and abstraction, painting and digital art, capturing what lies beyond the bounds of our perception, real or imagined. 

Each image possesses a record log: details — such as the time, month and temperature when it was taken. These all point to factual accuracy. However, the photographs are anything but objective. In one, a glittering sea shapeshifts as though superimposed in the cyan blue sky. In another, twin suns pull apart revealing a streak of simmering ochre between planes of blue. In the crepuscular East Siberian Sea, dark waters veer between stillness and gentle rippling. White orbs — a light leak or an otherworldly spiritual entity — creep into several of the frames. 

Seascapes exemplifies how perception can be an illusion. The sun plays tricks. In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sunset. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” Rousteau embraces this last line, leaning into how fantasies of distance, displacement and foreign shores all figure within our understanding of horizons.

Seascapes by Paul Rousteau is published by Loose Joints. 

Ellie Howard

Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.